Jay Lemke and what we DON’T talk about when we talk about identity

Lemke, Jay. “Identity, Development, and Desire: Critical Questions.” Identity Trouble: Critical Discourse and Contested Identities. Ed. Caldas-Coulthard, Carmen Rosa and Rick Iedema. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.

This entry has taken me forever to write. Lemke is useful and all, but dude’s writing is dense, and reading this chapter on gorgeous summer days felt like trying to get through a brick wall using a toothpick. Which, I suppose, is only to be expected from a chapter subtitled “critical questions.”

Anyhow, Lemke does some really interesting interrogation of what we mean when we say identity and who this concept of identity really serves. Identity, he says, is a “mediating term” between (abstract) categories and labels and (narrative) lived experiences.

“In this role the notion of identity inherits many features of earlier discourses framed in terms of soul, psyche, persona, personality, selfhood, subject, agency, and so forth. We also need to understand in what sense postmodern notions of identity embrace multiplicity and hybridity of social identities across both diverse human relationships and social categories such as gender, sexuality, class, culture, race, ethnicity, and so on.” (17)

That is, we have often understood identity in terms of being the essence of self, but Lemke wants to turn our attention to how we fit these notions with relational identities—group membership, juxtaposition (say, fatherhood), even temporal relations.

Parts of our identity are relational—being a good father requires someone to parent. Other parts aren’t determined by a single performance but rather accrue over time. How do we distinguish moments of identity performance from habits of identity? That is, how do people create long-term identity? According to Lemke, they have to have both multiple opportunities to enact the same kind of identity and the will to do so. That is, it doesn’t matter how much a man might wish to be a good father if he never has contact with his children, nor does it matter how much contact he has if he isn’t ever willing to try.

“What links the long term to the short is precisely recurrence: of persons with whom we can continue to enact some relationship in which our role is significant to our identity; of objects, including diaries, favourite books and films, familiar furnishings and clothes, through which we can continue to express aspects of our identities; of situation types in which we can recognize familiar scenarios and roles we can perform. Take all these things away and there is still the recurrence of our bodies across moments.” (25)

Although this seems to provide for a lot of agency, in many ways the choices we make about these elements are shaped by institutions within society—corporations training us as consumers, governments as citizens, and schools as students. Long-term social institutions provide resources for establishing and expressing identity, but they also control and limit the terms in which we are encouraged to conceive of ourselves. The fact that these forces shape us in similar ways is not a coincidence but rather “the product of interests and the domination of some interests over others” (32).

From here I’m going to break it into some rough topics where I found Lemke to be particularly useful, so if this seems scattershot, that’s because it is.

Multiple and hybrid identities

Identity is multiplicitous and changes depending on who we are talking to—“at least multi-faceted if not plural.” Yet Lemke seems somewhat ambivalent about how much the celebrated “multiple identity” really changes the status quo. On the one hand, he writes that the “stereotypes” are not package deals but are independently moving parts that individuals may exhibit to a greater or lesser degree. On the other hand, though, he also argues that it may be that even our “multiple identities” are “stereotypical identities which we mix and match like ready-to-wear ‘separates’ to our strategic advantage” (37).

Hybridity, however, is a problematic term because it assumes two pures that are blended and requires buying into two established identities in order to combine them.

Identity, politics, and power

This isn’t really a new thought, but I think it’s really nicely articulated here:

“Everyone of lower or weaker status must learn as a part of survival how the minds of the powerful work. Asymmetrically, the powerful are often much less able to put themselves in the shoes of those whose ways of thinking they are privileged to ignore.”

Politically, identity discourses legitimate the anger of people who have been oppressed as a group and call attention to diversity, but they also reinscribe many cultural assumptions and support the status quo.

The rebels and the weirdoes

According to Lemke, there are two kinds of outlier identity possible outside of the norm. One of these is the rebel, who actively resists the normative forces of the world, and the other is the weirdo, who does his or her own thing and is almost always misunderstood or dismissed as eccentric and/or crazy by those within the norm. However, the anti-establishment rebels still affirm the norm by virtue of pushing against it. “True novelty and variety” require genuine weirdoes who act independently of the system people whose transgression is accidental rather than deliberate.

Closing thoughts

Near the end of the piece, Lemke points to Paolo Freire’s exhortation for us to try to speak an authentic word, one that defines our identity without borrowing from institutions of power. I have long viewed Jezebel’s refusal to identify as feminist as a bad thing, a ploy for pageviews and trumped-up controversy. How interesting to potentially think of it as a deliberate choice to avoid taking their authentic community and naming it false with a word.

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